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Saturday, March 3, 2018

That Old House: GVT Douglas

The bungalow is not a native of Dixie, but its wide eaves and porch, copied from its Indian origins, are right at home in the sunny South.  I can so easily imagine this scene populated with kids and dogs playing in the yard beneath the shade trees, the grown-ups relaxing on the porch in rockers and a swing, iced tea and lemonade at hand, and from the idealized landscape beyond, a distant train whistle sounding through the sultry serenity of a summer Sunday afternoon.

Beginning what may become a regular feature, or not, on the Blue Truck with a little bit about one of my favorite topics, namely, old house plans.  I haven't often posted about this sort of thing because I know it is not a topic of great interest to most modern people.  But perhaps at least some of my truckbuddies will find it diverting.

Mainly because I just don't feel up to it today, I will spare you all the background lecture on the origins and development of mail-order houses and jump straight to a favorite of mine:  the Gordon-Van Tine bungalow called the Douglas, which was offered in their catalog from at least 1921 through 1936.

At 32 feet wide and 36 feet deep, with four bedrooms and bath, it was quite roomy for the time.  It's also interesting to note the little improvements made by 1936 that reduced wasted hallway space and made the front elevation extremely handsome, to my mind.  Scroll down and see what you think.

The 1921 version of the Douglas, with its typical bungalow details set off by dark siding and white trim.  Click to enlarge.

The earlier catalogs, and the later ones, had price lists in the front or back of the book; this catalog issued in the fall of 1929 listed the price on the same page as the house illustration.  Notice that there seems to be a special sales push on, with "freight paid" - I wonder if this catalog was put out in response to the Crash, and whether it boosted sales.  

For comparison, according to the excellent and very handy measuringworth.com, $2645 in 1929 was worth $37,100 in 2017 dollars.  This edition also gives many more details of all the standard and optional material and finish choices.  Paint, trim, moldings, door and window hardware, in fact everything necessary to build a habitable house, including everything but masonry and plaster, was included.  For example, you had to arrange in the usual way with a local contractor to dig and pour a cement foundation and basement walls; likewise for exterior stucco or brick veneer, or interior plasterwork.  Of course, none of that was included in the GVT price, either.

Every last stick of wood was cut precisely by giant machines, and bundled up neatly together with windows, doors, and roofing - even all the needed nails, screws, nuts, bolts, paint, and varnish - loaded at the factory in a forty-foot boxcar, and delivered to the nearest depot with a team track.  You paid the freight, but even so, you saved a bundle over buying uncut materials from your local lumber yard.  You then had to unload everything and haul it to the land you also had bought, where you could build it yourself, stick by pre-cut stick according to blueprints and directions - as many did - or you could hire a carpenter, or perhaps your brother-in-law, to do the job for you.  

And lest you think all this was a risky thing to do, many thousands of such homes are still standing and still solid as a rock, all across the country.  The advantage was the low cost of pre-cut materials, the savings in wasted time and materials over cutting each piece from raw lumber (without power tools!), and whatever sweat equity you chose to put into the finished project.  It seems that by buying a pre-cut home, most people saved about a third of the cost of a house built the regular way.

Just for fun, for the 1929 version above, I added up the price of options such as window screens, slate shingles, plumbing, electrical wiring, light fixtures, the recommended kitchen case, window shades, and a pipe furnace, to be housed downstairs in the basement:  all those basic necessities brought the price tag up to $3259.19, or in 2017 dollars, $45,700.

(For comparison, after consulting multiple official sources, I gather that the average wage for factory, construction, and railroad workers, along with public school teachers, was in the neighborhood of $1500-1600 a year in 1929 - equivalent to about $21,000 now, or about $10 an hour in our money.  Not much to raise a family on, but remember that they didn't have cable TV, air conditioning, internet, or credit cards then.)

Here's a picture of a Gordon-Van Tine kitchen from the 1931 catalog:  rather quaint to our modern eyes, but cozy and colorful:

At left, note the fashionable plaster arch and breakfast nook; the ice box just where it should be in the entryway from the back stoop, so the iceman doesn't have to track through the kitchen, dripping icewater and leaving muddy bootprints on the nice modern linoleum; at center the Gordon-Van Tine kitchen cabinets, with built-in flour and sugar bins; the handy kitchen stool under the sink, itself logically placed under a window - imagine that - so Mother could enjoy a view and a bit of breeze while scrubbing away.  You could choose from one of several color schemes:  this one has jade green cabinets, ivory panels, and vermilion trim.  GVT thought of everything and supplied everything, or tried to.

And here's a picture of the living room of one of their grander models, showcasing the high-end, extra-charge oak flooring:

And now for the piece de resistance:

The 1936 Douglas, with a much better use of hall space and a redesigned set of kitchen cabinets that will accommodate your swell new electric refrigerator.

Along with the perfect symmetry of the windows, it's the long, graceful arch across the front porch that makes this house so lovely - and of course the little details make all the difference.  Just look how much more elegant it appears with white siding, and, I would strongly urge, red shingles for the roof, to harmonize with the red brick pillars.  Very tasty, as they used to say.

Bungalows, meaning small, low-to-the-ground houses with wide eaves and often Craftsman-style details, were all the rage in the first decades of the 20th century, up till World War II.  There were many, many bungalows of this sort in the older sections of the city where I grew up - as a kid, I just thought of them as ancient, outmoded dwellings - now I understand why and how they were built as they were.  The interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s are the most interesting to me - first of all, because by that time most new houses had indoor plumbing and electricity, so you get a better sense of how people managed the ordinary needs of daily life.  The floor plans and roof lines in many cases seem more sensible then, too, compared to what came before the First World War.

And for another thing, my own grandparents' house, in which I lived for part of my childhood, was arranged very similar to the prevalent bungalow plan, though it was just a simple three-room shotgun house when they moved to town and bought it in 1925.  Over the years, however, they added on a room at a time down one side of the house, until they had a five-room house with two bathrooms; in later years, once all the children were grown and gone, they rented out the "new" side as an apartment, turning the back porch on that side into a mini-kitchen.

I don't have a picture of my grandparents' house to share with you all, but it was much simpler than most catalog houses - something like this rather plain model, with a bigger kitchen and an enclosed back porch, but without closets or basement:

Hard to believe now that people could live and raise three children - not to mention take in from time to time assorted friends and relations who needed a place to stay - and do it fairly happily in such a small house.  But they did, and though early on they got electric lights and indoor plumbing, they always lived very simply, as they had on the farm, and were to all appearances perfectly content with their little abode.  They lived simply, dressed simply, ate simply, went to bed with the proverbial chickens at night, and rose with the dawn.  And they both lived past 90.  There's a lot to be said for simplicity of life - as many a poet and philosopher has told us.

It's only since I have become a senior citizen myself that I have come to realize, truly, how incomprehensible the frenetic modern world of the 1960s and later must have seemed to them, children of the thrifty, hard-working, down-home and upright Victorian era.  And I am glad they did not live to see this present world.  But there I must leave you all to make your own reflections on human progress.


Frank said...

Welcome back!

One of the things I wanted to do someday was to build a house from the ground up. I always liked bungalows, especially the craftsman style (some of our furniture is faux-craftsman/mission style.

However, building a house at my age and finances is not going to happen.

Here in New Mexico, our little town has no bungalows, but we are very happy with our 1200 sq foot Spanish (colonial?) ranch style.

I question the conversion to current currency. It is interesting, but given the prices of houses today, that seems out of proportion. One of those same bungalows would probably sell for $180,000 (a lot more than the $45,700 2017 dollars) in a depressed area of Connecticut. . Even adding $60,000 for land and construction costs, $105,700 would be a bargain. Except in California, a little bungalow could be over $1 million.

Russ Manley said...

I agree - you couldn't buy or build a house for anywhere near that price today. It seems to me that in the last 20-25 years, house prices have accelerated astronomically, far beyond the ordinary cost of living index. I'm no economist so I can't explain it - but I do know that where I used to live, a modest 1950s ranch style home that sold for $40,000 in 1990 was going for $120,000 in 2008 - it had been newly renovated, but still. I was completely astounded.

With the GVT houses, essentially you are looking at the price of the building materials alone - all of them cut to fit, notched and numbered at the factory. That doesn't include, however, the freight charge via rail; nor the cost of the land to build it on; nor the cost of the labor to put all those pieces together; nor the cost of a foundation or basement; nor the cost of connecting to utilities; and so on and so forth. Yes, you save money buying everything pre-cut, and save more money by doing the work yourself, if you can - no architect or contractor to pay, either.

But the total cost of a completely finished dwelling might be half again the cost of the building materials. Then there's the cost of furnishings like rugs and draperies, to say nothing of furniture. And depending on the neighborhood where it was built, the market value of a finished home might be even higher than that - perhaps 2 or 3 times the cost of the building materials, or more.

So back to your observation - the relationship between cost of materials, cost of erection, and ultimate market value of one of these homes is complex - then trying to translate all that into today's economic values is even more so. I just wish some forward-thinking ancestor had left me one of these nice little bungalows that would sell for a cool million today - ah well, it's nice to dream.

BTW I had already noticed the Mission-style vibe that looks so handsome in your sunny desert house. Very nice indeed.

Davis said...

Growing up my cousins had a bungalow and I longed to live in one - I especially wanted the room above the deep porch.

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